SOLDOTNA -- Thirty years ago, moose on the Kenai Peninsula were legendary for their size and abundance. Now, however, it appears increasingly likely that those historic days are, indeed, history, as land and wildlife managers wrestle with measures to boost the dwindled ungulate population. In the halcyon days, the peninsula's moose population was estimated at around 4,000. Nowadays, it's far less than that. A recent census, conducted just a few weeks ago by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, estimates 1,600 moose in Game Management Unit 15A, covering 1,300 square miles of the northwestern Kenai Peninsula. That's down from about 2,000 in 2008, and that, in turn, is about 40 percent less than census estimates in the 1990s. Just four moose were harvested by hunters in 15A last year, and just four the previous year, down from the once-typical 350 to 360 a year. That's in part due to the smaller population, and in part due to decreased hunter participation after the Alaska Board of Game enacted stepped-up hunting restrictions in 2011 to protect the population.
The Board of Game met in Kenai earlier this month to consider proposals covering Game Management Units in Southeast, Cordova, Kodiak, the Anchorage area and the Kenai Peninsula. Nine proposals were submitted regarding moose on the peninsula, aimed at finding a balance between bolstering the population with the hope of increasing hunter opportunity. The proposed changes are largely incremental — measured tweaks to conditions and regulations, which, if results come as intended, would effect incremental changes to the population.
But the biggest contributing factor to the decline in moose population is far more substantial, than incremental, in scale. Moose are not werewolves, yet there is believed to be a silver-bullet solution to the most significant problem of their decline. What's needed, say land and wildlife managers, is fire, but not just any fire. This would be the Goldilocks of wildland fire — hot enough to burn down to mineral soil but not too hot so as to burn out of control, widespread enough to regenerate tens of thousands of acres of forest that has matured beyond the point of providing good moose browse, yet not so big that it poses too big a threat to human health, habitation, development and transportation, and occurring under just the right conditions and timing so as to not overtax available firefighting resources.
That solution is proving to be as mythical as werewolves.
"The Kenai has had harvest well in excess of 1,200 moose alone, historically, and you're going to hear from a lot of folks who have been here a long time and remember the good old days and want those days back," said Ted Spraker, chair of the Board of Game and retired Kenai-area Fish and Game wildlife biologist, in starting off the meeting Friday.
Trend toward the low end
Those days may never come, at least not reminiscent of the highest spikes in the peninsula's moose populations, because those populations resulted from ideal circumstances that no longer exist. Kenai Peninsula forests provide the best moose browse when they're young — with lots of tender birch and willow saplings on which to munch. Fire provides the most efficient means of regenerating new and young growth that sustains moose.
In 1947, about 300,000 acres of the western Kenai Peninsula burned in a wildfire, followed by about 86,000 acres in 1969. Forest regeneration hits its peak of providing good moose habitat about 15 to 20 years post fire, and moose numbers in 15A rose accordingly, seeing spikes in the 1960s following the 1947 burn, and the 1980s following the 1969 burn.
"The reason Kenai moose became so famous — they were initially thought to be their own separate species because they were so large — is because, through a series of fires, they had probably the best possible summer range and winter range for a certain amount of time," said Thomas McDonough, a Homer-based wildlife biologist with Fish and Game.
As the forest matures, quality moose habitat declines. Studies show moose densities tend to return to pre-fire levels about 40 years after a fire. Accordingly, moose numbers dipped in the 1970s and have been declining since the 1980s. It's now been more than 40 years since a significant wildfire occurred in 15A. Lack of adequate browse can cause a slew of problems — low body fat with which to survive winter, lower likelihood of successful reproduction and producing calves that are born late and with lower birth weight, meaning they are less likely to survive.
"We found animals in 15A, many of them had very poor musculature, which is an indication they've been metabolizing protein as well as reducing their body fat," McDonough said of moose surveys being done in a three-year project in the spring and fall. "… Many 15A cows in the fall had relatively poor musculature, indicating even though they should be at peak of condition they might not have been fully able to recover from the previous winter conditions."
On top of the issues of poor health seen in poor habitat are all the other causes of moose mortalities, the effects of which can become amplified upon a population lacking adequate browse. Deep snow winters are difficult on moose, especially calves, and the winter of 2011-12 was a record-breaker in that respect. "When snow typically reaches around chest-high of a calf, about 36 inches or 90 centimeters, it severely restricts movement, it reduces food availability and occurs at a time of year when moose are typically losing their body reserves. Past studies have seen substantial calf mortality when snow depth reached 90 centimeters for several months," McDonough said.
Predators also are an issue, with brown bears being the heaviest predators of moose calves on the peninsula, followed by wolves, black bears and a few others. Hunting can take its toll, too, though restrictions enacted by the Board of Game in 2011 instituted a few years' reprieve from most hunting pressure on the peninsula.
But humans are still a large cause of moose mortality, even when not hunting. Upward of 200 to 250 moose a year are killed in motor-vehicle collisions on the Kenai Peninsula, and others die in defense-of-life-and-property (DLP) shootings, from eating plastic bags and other indigestible items while rummaging through garbage, and as the result of other negative run-ins with people. The road-kill problem is particularly thorny, as it doesn't seem to decrease as the moose population decreases, likely because more moose are hanging out around roads. The phenomenon stands to reason, said Ted Selinger, area wildlife biologist, as disturbances to vegetation tend to chum in moose to fresh browse. Clearing along right of ways or clearing lots for development generate slash piles for moose to pick through, as well as new browse growing up after the clearing.
"There are disturbances, and what food that they have occurs more in those areas (along roads and development). I believe that is the reason why they have shifted in to town," Selinger said, noting public testimony of increased moose sightings in town, and particularly in North Kenai recently along road-clearing work. "I would agree that more of our moose population is closer to our settlements and our roadways. Traffic volumes have increased, as well."
Too hot to handle?
Underpinning all these factors is the continued maturation of the forest in 15A, and its continued reduction in moose habitat. But wide-scale fire isn't a likely solution. The state of Alaska only manages a fraction of the land in 15A. About 80 percent of the area is within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, under the purview of the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the remaining about 20 percent includes borough and city lands, native association, private and state lands. The state lands in 15A are too close to habitation to conduct a prescribed burn to improve moose habitat. And the refuge's approach to fire sparked a lengthy conversation at Friday's Board of Game meeting.
Refuge representatives Larry Bell, assistant regional director for the office of external affairs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Andy Loranger, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manager, agree that fire is the most effective means of regenerating good moose habitat on the Kenai. "I want to make it clear that we are in lockstep with our department colleagues, with folks that recognize the importance of fire for moose and moose population dynamics," Loranger said.
The fire of 1969, in particular, was fabulously effective at improving habitat. However, it was also of a scale and threat level that fire managers would work very hard to suppress were it to happen today, Loranger said. "That fire back in 1969 scared the dickens out of people. It was the most expensive suppression effort to date of a wildland fire," he said.
Fire, where possible, is the refuge's preferred approach to improving moose habitat, Bell said. Decades ago mechanical manipulation of lands was more heavily used — cutting down and chewing up swaths of backcountry forest. But such efforts are expensive and not nearly as effective as fire. "The refuge has shifted from mechanical manipulation to fire, planned and unplanned. We've learned over the years that conducting prescribed burns is extremely challenging, and we've had our greatest success in managing backcountry fires for resource benefits where and when we can safely do so. Our opportunities to do both are becoming increasingly challenging as the Kenai's population grows and new development occurs in the wildland-urban interface," Bell said.
The refuge occasionally conducts prescribed burns to clear targeted areas for regrowth, but it is increasingly difficult to find conducive conditions, Loranger said. "First and foremost in our considerations is always public and firefighter safety," he said. "… Depending on time of the year, the current weather conditions, drought conditions versus not, predicted weather, where the wind is blowing to, the availability of resources is a very important consideration — if there's a lot of fires in Southcentral and resources are spread thin, that is going to affect our decision. All of those considerations will affect our decisions."
This story first appeared in the Redoubt Reporter and is published here with permission.